JOURNAL OF GENTRY GENEALOGY
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Issue 2000 (A)
May 2007
 
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NICHOLAS GENTRY, THE IMMIGRANT
A Case Study of Erroneous Data Entry

by
Willard Gentry

Introduction
For a variety of reasons, genealogical records accumulated and saved for private use, or published on the internet or elsewhere for public use, may contain data that is false. Names, dates and locations may be wrong, as may relationships within a family. Other information may have been added where the sources for that information do not justify it. Supplementary material about the life and circumstances of an individual may be in error. Intrinsically, the only real harm from wrong data is that the people using it are misled, it does nothing to change the true course of events. For individual members of a family tree, this faulty data may affect only a few people, particularly if there are a minimum number of generations following the person who is incorrectly recorded. For ancestors who represent the start of a long line of descendants, hundreds or thousands of those descendants may be affected. Such is the case of mistakes in the record of Nicholas Gentry of Virginia, the original ancestor of an overwhelming number of people living today who include the Gentry line in their family tree. With well over four hundred family trees posted on the internet (for example in RootsWeb.com's WorldConnect site), plus many printed historical excerpts and multitudes of private records, the shadow cast by Nicholas Gentry is large indeed.

Nicholas and Samuel Gentry - A Summary
Very few incontestable facts are known about the Nicholas Gentry who first appeared in the records of the Virginia Colony in 1680. He lived in the vicinity of Totopotomoy Creek which was a part of New Kent County during Nicholas' lifetime and became a part of Hanover County in 1720. A handful of records indicate that he owned land there and was a member of St. Peters Parish (from which in 1704 St. Pauls Parish was formed). The baptisms of three of his children were recorded in the Register of St. Peters Parish, namely a daughter Elizabeth in 1689, a son Nicholas in 1697 and a daughter "Mabell" in 1702. Between 1689 and 1709, an additional seven references to a Nicholas Gentry are included in the Vestry Book of St. Peters Parish and its successor, St. Pauls Parish. (A summary of these references can be found in volume 1, issue 1 of the Journal of Gentry Genealogy - see index to volume 1.) The lack of references to this Nicholas in further Vestry Book references from 1712 onward suggests that Nicholas may have died between 1709 and 1712.

There are four references to a Samuel Gentry during this same period of time. In 1674, Nicholas Cocke was awarded headrights for transporting seven persons to Middlesex County, Virginia, including Samuel Gentry. In 1684, Samuel Gentry was granted a patent for 300 acres of land along Totopotomoy Creek adjoining land of Nicholas Gentry in New Kent County, Virginia. In 1687, the Register of St. Peters Parish records the baptism of Peter Gentry, son of Samuel Gentry on April 10th. Finally, in 1706, a deed by David Holt for the sale of 300 acres of land (still adjoining Nicholas Gentry) identifies this land as being that granted to Samuel Gentry who on 5 Jan 1685 (1686 by the modern calendar) deeded it to David Crawford (grandfather of David Holt). This Samuel is generally believed to have been a brother of Nicholas Gentry. The lack of any further references to Samuel or to his son Peter has led to the further conclusion that Samuel (and Peter) either died in Virginia or returned to England.

From these skeletal facts, genealogists have been able to flesh out a prolific family of Gentrys who descended from Nicholas. Some of the supplementary inferences and additional details have been justified, some have not. We will consider in turn most of the controversial data that has been added to the record of Nicholas to see what faulty material has been added and how it might have come about.

The British "Red-coat" Tradition
The earliest addition to the Nicholas Gentry record dates back to at least 1909. Richard Gentry, compiler of the classic book about the Gentry family, "The Gentry Family in America, 1676 to 1909", records, "There is a tradition in the family that the first Gentrys to settle in America were two young men, brothers [Samuel and Nicholas], who came from England as British soldiers, and settled in Virginia." Richard Gentry notes further, "British soldiers sent over to Virginia by Charles II [to] settle the controversy between Gov. Berkeley and the people of Virginia at the time of the Bacon Rebellion in January 1677, were not paid off and discharged until the fall of 1683, and many of them remained and settled in Virginia." Supporters of this tradition point to the historical fact that in 1684, Samuel Gentry received a grant of 300 acres of land on Totopotomoy Creek and that Nicholas Gentry was occupying land adjacent to this grant.

Richard Gentry does not say where this tradition was found in the Gentry family nor how widely supported, but for the next seventy or eighty years it was essentially accepted by Gentry family genealogists as factual. Further, many family histories have been embellished with details of the date of sailing of the British convoy, the names of the ships involved, and the names of commanding officers of the two presumed Gentry red-coats. Within the last twenty years or so, facts have come to light about the first Gentry settlers that cast in doubt this rather romantic tale and suggest instead that Samuel and Nicholas Gentry arrived in Virginia as indentured servants.

The most convincing piece of evidence is the certificate mentioned above granting headrights in September 1674 (before the time of the Bacon Rebellion) to a certain Nicholas Cocke for the transportation to Virginia of seven individuals including Samuel Gentry. This date for Samuel's presence in Virginia affects both the red-coat tradition, and also theories of his descent from Gentrys in Essex, England. Nicholas Gentry is also the subject of an early reference that predates the time of discharge of the British garrison. In 1680, a Nicholas Sabrell was ordered to pay wages to Nicholas Gentry for service in the militia of the Mattapony [River] Garrison until the previous June. Lest it be thought that the garrison in which Nicholas was serving was a British Army garrison, the court order continues with instructions that these wages "be paid to Nicholas Sabrell by the forty which Gentry serves for", a "forty" being a subdivision of the county's local population. Taken together, these two references imply that Samuel and Nicholas both came to America as indentured servants and place in doubt the family "Red-Coat Tradition".

Family Tree Postings on the Internet
The wide spread practice of posting family trees on the internet has led to the common practice of individuals downloading relevant portions of published family trees and adding those fragments to their own family trees. Many of these extended trees have been posted back to the internet, probably more have simply been included in private data collections. For a convenient way to review existing information that has been posted for Nicholas Gentry, a sampling of family trees on the RootsWeb.com WorldConnect website has been taken as source material for this study. A total of 425 trees are included, all for a Nicholas Gentry born in England who emigrated to Virginia. As one looks at this sampling, it is very obvious that the data on Nicholas originated from a much smaller number of original files. The search engine for RootsWeb tends to group together the trees that have a common source, and the same spelling, wording, source materials, comments, etc. for one family tree are often repeated for varying numbers of succeeding trees.

Lucy Cornelius, Alleged Spouse of Nicholas Gentry
In point of time, the next questionable point after that of the "Red-coat tradition" that was added to the Nicholas Gentry data skeleton, was a wife who was identified as Lucy Cornelius. This started some time after 1909, for Richard Gentry does not include any mention of this possibility in his book. A record of an LDS Church "endowment" of Lucy, dated November 1923, sets a bound for the latest date of this data entry. This writer has never been able to track the source of the suggestion that Lucy Cornelius was a wife of Nicholas. So far, no one has come forward with any reference to the existence of Lucy outside of the Nicholas family trees. While it is not possible to prove that Lucy Cornelius was never a wife of Nicholas, conversely no one so far has been able to prove that she ever existed. It is significant that in a census of parish families in St. Peters Parish in 1689, neighbors of Nicholas, there were no Cornelius families listed. It is highly probable that Lucy's name was inserted in a family submission to the patron files of the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons, commonly abbreviated as LDS).. As to how and why that may have occurred, we cannot say. Once included in the Ancestral File or International Genealogical Index, by church policy, changes are never made. The only corrections are by means of a new submission that includes the proper information. Like the internet today, the LDS records have always been a database that is widely available to genealogists. Its very availability makes it easy for incorrect information to be easily spread by users who do not have the inclination or the ability to properly evaluate that data.

Lucy Cornelius Embellishments
In the 425 Nicholas Gentry family trees in our study sample, 290 give Lucy Cornelius as a wife of Nicholas. A substantial portion of these trees also list a second, and in a few cases, a third wife. The alternative wives will be considered below, but for the moment let us concentrate on Lucy. A great deal of gratuitous information has been added to the records of the hypothetical Lucy Cornelius. We can summarize this as:

  • Date of birth (added to 55 records): 1657 in Essex, England; 1659 in New Kent County, Virginia; 1655-1658 in England; 1665 in England; but most often 1660 in England.
  • Date of death: 1704; after 1704; 1706; 1710; 1734; 109 entries have 1754 or "before 1754".
  • Place of death: Most indicate New Kent, Virginia; "New Kent County, Hanover, Virginia"; or simply Virginia; 49 give Fort Nashboro, Tennessee [how this originated is difficult to imagine since Fort Nashboro was not built until 1779].
  • Marriage: 1677 to 1695, most often about 1686; the place is most often given as New Kent County, Virginia. Several trees add the notation "National Society Daughters of Colonial Wars lists marriage as 1686". A number of family trees, and some documents relating the history of the Gentry family, have indicated that Lucy was married to Nicholas by proxy, the marriage taking place in the "Faculty Office" of the Archbishop of Canterbury in London, England, in 1690. [This is a legitimate possibility on its face, since the Faculty Office of the Church of England did perform proxy marriages under special circumstances. This possibility has been disproved, however, by a search of the record of marriages from 1685 to 1695 (stored in the Lambeth Palace Library in London, England) in which there is no mention of either a Nicholas Gentry or a Lucy Cornelius.]

Other Suggested Wives for Nicholas Gentry
Compared to Lucy Cornelius, the next most common proposal for a wife of Nicholas has been Mabel (or Mable) Wood. In the sampling of Nicholas Gentry family trees used for this study, 122 list Mabel as the only wife or as one of two or more wives of Nicholas. A dozen of these trees go further in listing her as "Jane Mabel/Mable Wood". The name Mabel Wood has a source that we will trace in a moment, but the addition of Jane as a first name is difficult to reconcile. The best explanation is probably that the originator of this name was confused with Nicholas Gentry Jr., son of Nicholas Sr., and picked up the name, Jane, from the former's will. Nicholas Jr. died in Albemarle County, Virginia in 1787, and included a wife, Jane in the will.

The name, Mabel Wood, undoubtedly has been taken from the Vestry Book records of St. Peters Parish. In 1701, Nicholas Gentry was reimbursed by the parish for the cost of clothes and funeral expenses for a Mabel Wood. In the context of other entries in the Vestry Book, this was certainly not related to expense for a wife of Nicholas (for which he would certainly have been responsible himself), but was an example of the care provided by the parish for members who were impoverished, widowed, or otherwise in need. Typically, a neighbor was charged with providing the necessary care and then was reimbursed for the expense.

What is very unusual in the proposals that Mabel was a wife of Nicholas, is the date of marriage most commonly given which is 1683 or 1684 (though a few family trees cite "after 1708"), followed by a second marriage to Lucy Cornelius in about 1686. This certainly has no relationship to the parish records and indicates a complete lack of knowledge of the origin of the name. Another unusual entry in a few trees is the fact that the mother of Mabel Wood is given as Jane Guthrie. As in the case of Lucy Cornelius, a large number of family trees are not content to leave an empty space on their family group sheet form or on the computer input screen, and a gratuitous addition of a date of birth has been included. One birth entry is truly confused, giving a date of birth of 1657 and the place as Albemarle County, Virginia (nearly ninety years before the creation of this county)!

A half-dozen of the Nicholas Gentry trees in the internet sampling give an Elizabeth as a spouse for Nicholas, in most cases leaving her surname as unknown. The source for this name is completely unknown, but a date of birth of about 1670 in England is listed. A final proposed wife for Nicholas in the sampling is Jane Brown (or in one case just "Unknown Brown"). Like the addition of the name Jane to Mabel Wood mentioned above, this is surely a co-mingling of data for Nicholas Sr., and his son Nicholas Jr. (for whom Jane Brown is usually identified as a wife). One tree listing Jane gives her as a third spouse, and in the next generation of the family tree, lists two spouses for Nicholas Jr., namely Mary Brooks and Jane Martin.

Parents of Nicholas Gentry
We will not spend much time on this question as it has been covered in some depth in recent issues of the Journal of Gentry Genealogy (Issues A and B, April and June, 2006)(see index to back articles on this website). The prevalence of Samuel Gentry as father and Margaret Draper as mother is shown by the fact that of 425 family trees taken for our internet survey, 238 of them list Samuel and Margaret as parents. The only other parent found is a Nicholas Gentry in 6 cases. The remainder of the family trees simply list Nicholas' parents as being unknown.

The presumption that Samuel and Margaret were Nicholas' parents dates to fairly recent years, and undoubtedly comes from an article in May 1987, by Mrs. Herbert R. Gentry in "Gentry Family Gazette and Genealogy Exchange" (published by Richard Hayden Gentry). Mrs. Gentry presented a comprehensive summary of information found on her behalf by professional genealogists in England. They were unable to find any Nicholas Gentry in the English records of births or baptisms, deaths or burials, wills and probate action, or other court cases during the 1600's. Lacking any Nicholas, efforts to identify a parent have had to depend on identifying a Samuel Gentry who might have been a brother of Nicholas. Readers of this article seized upon the fact that a Samuel Gentry and Margaret Draper were married in Thaxted, Essex, England, on 22 Aug 1655, and then had a son Samuel who was baptized 9 Aug 1663 at Great Easton, Essex. This son, Samuel, seemed to some to fit the Samuel Gentry who was granted land in New Kent County, Virginia in 1684, land which adjoined Nicholas Gentry. Undoubtedly all of these readers were ignorant of the fact that a Samuel Gentry was brought to Virginia in 1674 (presumably the same as the 1684 Samuel) when the Essex Samuel was only ten years old. From there, this identification of Nicholas' parents has obviously gained very wide acceptance. This author firmly believes that the Samuel Gentry who married Margaret Draper could not have been the father of Nicholas and his brother Samuel. We have proposed Nathaniel and Mary Gentry as the best alternative for parents in the past articles, but will not pursue the issue further here.

Birth and Death of Nicholas Gentry
Along with the proposal that Samuel Gentry and Margaret Draper were the parents of Nicholas, has come the very wide-spread identification of 1655 as the latter's date of birth. Given the fact that this was the year of Samuel and Margaret's marriage, it is likely that the first people who added this date to their records for Nicholas did so as a very approximate birth date following the marriage. With limitations in the way various genealogy software programs accept dates, it is easy to see that this date degenerated in presentation and has wound up as a definite date. As an example of using dates inappropriately by family historians, the 1655 date has frequently been further qualified to list 22 Aug 1655 for the birth date of Nicholas (this date in fact is the date of marriage for Samuel and Margaret). Even worse, a number of family trees in our internet sampling, list 22 Oct 1655 as a birth date. October 22, by coincidence is the date given in Mrs. Herbert Gentry's article for Samuel Sr.'s burial (in 1695).

Other dates include a couple of "outliers" at 1635 and 1650, but most list 1660 or 1660-1665 as alternatives. Actually, a date range of five or six years centered on 1660 would probably include the true date. The only criticism is to the reporting of a specific year of birth when such date cannot be confirmed and is entirely an estimate.

Beyond the question of date, a lack of knowledge of English geography is very evident in a variety of family trees that list Nicholas' place of birth as "Sussex, Essexshire, England" or "Essex, Sussex, England". In addition, source records have been misspelled by those copying them, with Thaxted being spelled "Thaxtel" and "Thaxter" in multiple records.

There is a far wider range of dates for Nicholas' death. These are grouped as follows: one for 1705; 1709-1712 (44 entries); 1720 (10 entries); 1736 (264 entries); and "before 1755" and 1755 (29 entries), plus several entries that were computer-generated giving a range of 1728-1788. The first date range is very appropriate, but the very large number of family trees giving 1736 as the year Nicholas died, are truly a mystery. In that year, a Nicholas Gentry was granted 400 acres of land in western Hanover County (later to become Louisa County), but that was Nicholas Jr., (although he was not identified as such in the land patent). It is difficult to imagine why this acquisition of land would lead someone to think that Nicholas Sr. had died in that year. (A deed of land from one Nicholas to another in anticipation of death might be a different matter, but this was a grant of land from the Colonial Land Office to Nicholas.) The cases where Nicholas's death is reported as 1755 are likewise a mystery. They are probably related to the listing of the year 1754 for the death of Lucy Cornelius, but no logical reason for either is apparent.

Children of Nicholas Gentry
For both public and private genealogy records, one is particularly interested in an individual's birth, marriage and death with a date and a location for each of these vital statistics. The identity of the individual's spouse is equally important. We want these to be reported accurately, and if there is a degree of uncertainty about any data item, that should be indicated in the record. There is not quite the same concern with parents or children of the individual. The parents' names and vital statistics should be given correctly if known, but the lack of such information is just a part of the normally incomplete nature of genealogy records. The names of children, hopefully, should also be correct. But there is not the same pressure for completeness that there is for the parent individual.

In a great many cases, you may be trying to extend the pedigree of an ancestral family member, and you want to know the pertinent facts about that family member and his or her parents. Whether you have any interest in the family member's siblings is a different question. This explains the fact that the Nicholas Gentry family trees that we sampled from the internet and discussed above, for the most part included only the one child that connected to a succeeding family pedigree or descendancy chart.

A significant number of the internet sample family trees did include more than one child of Nicholas. We mentioned in the opening paragraphs that there is documentary evidence in the Register of St. Peters Parish for three of the children of Nicholas, namely Elizabeth, Nicholas Jr., and Mabel, giving their dates of baptism (not of their births). Succeeding Vestry Book records for the successor parish, St. Pauls Parish, very strongly suggest that Joseph Gentry and Samuel Gentry were also children of Nicholas. These names occur frequently in Nicholas Gentry family trees, especially those of Nicholas Jr. and Samuel. There is some variation in records of dates of birth but not so extreme that it poses a serious problem. Two other names are found in a significant number of the family trees, James Gentry and David Gentry. These are names that are within the bounds of appropriate inclusion as both lie on a borderline of possibility as to whether they were sons of Nicholas or grandsons. James Gentry in particular, is one that might have been a son of Nicholas or a son of Nicholas' oldest son, Joseph. David Gentry, based on estimations of his date of birth, could perhaps have been a son of Nicholas, but much more likely, was a son of Nicholas' son, Samuel. A daughter, Mary who married John Spradling, is also a possibility for Nicholas.

One wishes that all the listings for multiple children of Nicholas were complete and correct. This is not always the case, but in most instances where errors are made in listing children, there is no inclusion of any further generations to muddy the waters more than they already are. A case in point is the inclusion of William Gentry and occasionally a John Gentry as a son of Nicholas Gentry. Fortunately, in none of these listings are any children or spouse given for either William or John. There is good evidence for a William being a grandchild of Nicholas, but no evidence whatsoever for him being a son. Similarly, there is probable evidence for more than one grandson, John, but not for a son, John. An occasional family tree in the internet group has added Moses Gentry as a son. This is clearly a case of displaced generations, because the only Moses among the early generations of Gentrys is known to have been a son of Nicholas Gentry Jr., not Nicholas Sr.

A related series of mistakes, which we will not get into here, is found with the internet records for Nicholas Jr. A very large number of them give Mary Brooks (alone or with various additions and embellishments to her name) as the wife of Nicholas Jr. This can be clearly demonstrated to be wrong, Mary being the wife instead, of the nephew of Nicholas Jr., his brother Samuel's son, Nicholas-III (known at the time in Louisa County as "Nicholas the Younger"). Other erroneous wives include Sarah Jennings, Jane Albert, Jane Martin, Jane Abbott, Elizabeth Granger, Elizabeth Stringer, Jane Austill, Sarah Dickens, and Jane Barrett. Two of these, Elizabeth Stringer and Sarah Dickens were wives of Nicholas Jr.'s son, Nicholas III, rather than Nicholas Jr. There is absolutely no obvious rationalization for any of the others.

A final series of mistakes among the descendants of Nicholas Gentry Sr., lies with proposals that Elizabeth Gentry, or Mable Gentry, or both, married James Haggard of Stafford County, Virginia. As with the wives of Nicholas Jr., this is not a question which we will address here other than to speculate that the Elizabeth Gentry part of this mixup may have arisen from the fact that Nicholas Jr. had a daughter Elizabeth who married Nathaniel Haggard, a son of the James Haggard mentioned above. Nathaniel and Elizabeth then had a son, James Haggard, who married his first cousin, Elizabeth (Betsie) Gentry, daughter of Moses Gentry (a brother of the elder Elizabeth). With such convoluted relationships, it is not surprising that generations of Gentrys and Haggards might be misplaced.

Conclusion
A sample of 425 family trees posted in the RootsWeb.com WorldConnect website on the internet has been used to illustrate the wide variety of erroneous entries for Nicholas Gentry Sr. that can be found in the public records. These are probably only the tip of the iceberg and many, many more of mistakes are surely included in private family trees, differing only in number, not in content. It is too much to believe to think that any significant number of either the public or the private family trees will ever be corrected, but if only a few readers of this article review their own records and correct mistakes, it will be worthwhile. It is the author's hope that having a catalog of mistaken entries for Nicholas Gentry on record, will provide a valuable point of reference for future genealogists.

5/16/07


© 2007, W.M. Gentry - All rights reserved. This issue may be reproduced in whole or in part for non-commercial purposes provided that proper attribution (including authors and journal names) is included.

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